Monday, December 04, 2006

On Bergman Island

Fate artfully arranged to have Robert Altman's final film, A Prairie Home Companion, to be a wrestling match with death. With equal artistry, Ingmar Bergman, age 88, has arranged an Altman-esque "long goodbye" for his passing--almost a quarter-century long, as it happens. He retired from moviemaking with 1982's Fanny and Alexander (the only one of his theatrical features I saw first-run, in a theater) but the screenplays and teleplays have continued to emerge, 2003's made-for-television Saraband under his direction. According to his his Internet Movie Database entry he also makes documentary appearances, checking in with his fellow Swedes like a distant but admired uncle. In 2004 filmmaker Marie Nyrerod made three hour-long films with him, which were broadcast on Swedish TV; these have been distilled into the 85-minute Bergman Island (SVT Sales), which New York's Film Forum is showing beginning Dec. 6, along with a quite different co-feature.

"Bergman Island" is the island of Faro, in the Baltic Sea. He came upon it in the late 1950's, when he was looking for a suitably austere setting for Through a Glass Darkly (1960), which went to win the foreign-language Oscar that year. He went on to shoot five more films on Faro, including Persona (1966) and Scenes From a Marriage (1973). The location spoke to him, artistically, but also emotionally; he has lived there, in relative isolation, for many years. Faro is so bound up in the tortured psychodynamics of the films it's hard to get a sense of it as a purely physical place, but here, in what he says will be his last film appearance, Bergman draws back the curtain for Nyrerod's camera to explore. It is quite striking, and not as stark as you might think; the rich blue ocean water laps gently at its shores, and Bergman's compound, which includes a swimming pool and a cinema, has a homespun, hewn-by-hand air. Bergman, who looks in ruddy good health (he seems aged in wood, perhaps a native constitution), enjoys playing tour guide, interspersed with comments on his films, his despondency following the death of his fifth wife, Ingrid von Rosen, in 1995, and his personal demons--mitigated, he says, by the wellspring of his creativity, which resulted in more than 50 features, many without peer, over the last 60 years. [He is pictured with a camera his parents bought him at age 10.]

A summer ago I took a look at the personal artifacts of Marlon Brando before they were auctioned in New York. I was fascinated to see that on his DVD shelves was a copy of Batman and Robin; I mean, it's on mine, too (I have no shame), but what did Brando see in it--was he a Batman fan? Did he covet the role of Mr. Freeze? Whenever I get a walkthrough of this type on film I always look for the odd, personal touches, the ones that can't be explained by a biography or resume as we know them. At one point Bergman is seated in front of a shelf of videos, but alas I couldn't make out the titles. I was, however, delighted to see that the director has a proper place for his Oscars; nothing ostentatious, but a more fitting display than the bathroom, which is where so many winners claim, with offhand disdain, to keep them. And, relating the circumstances of his tax exile, he mentions a Hollywood pool party that Barbra Streisand invited him to. Inner torment, anxiety, depression; I expected Bergman to address these subjects. But Streisand was unexpected. Too clear-eyed and ever-so-slightly-bemused to be a dirge, Bergman Island ends (or, maybe, "ends") its subject's life and career on a grace note of anticlimax; the rest is just obituary, and we will have the work itself to console us one day.

Bergman Island is preceded by Guy Maddin's delightful short film, My Dad is 100 Years Old (Zeitgeist Films), Isabella Rossellini's little tribute to her father, Roberto (1906-1977). The "father of neorealism" (a title he shrugged at) would probably have groaned at the fanciful form of this commemorative, in which his daughter plays all the parts, including David Selznick and Alfred Hitchcock, and he is portrayed as a giant belly, monitoring an average day's activities from his bed and bath. It is full of mad Maddin touches, like a pair of wolfen eyes to suggest the presence of Anna Magnani, who the director spurned when he took up with his daughter's mother, Ingrid Bergman. Rossellini fell out with Fellini when the latter turned toward fantasy in his work; what he would have made of Maddin is anyone's guess. But the film buffery is respectful, even if the scholarship is far from the norm of the usual talking heads approach. And I'm sure he would have had at least one indulgent, paternal smile for his daughter's head-nor-tails approach to his legacy.

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